Racist photo troubles kids at high school

A white teenager, made up in blackface, with an arrow connecting the image to a written word: “Nigger.” Sound a little, oh, racist? Hate-filled? Ignorant? Imagine seeing that as one the few black kids at the affluent, nearly all-white school where that image was making the social media rounds — Ridgefield High School.

“What makes me uncomfortable is the queasy feeling I get in my stomach when I hear of situations like this,” said Lashawnna Mullins, a freshman who attends RHS as part of the A Better Chance program.

“I feel like there’s a lot of kids who know absolutely nothing about African-American culture. All they know is we went through slavery and then we got rights. They feel like it’s something that happened, and we should all get over it,” Lashawnna said.

“I’d say about 15% of the students at RHS think the N-word is just another word,” she said.

Lashawnna, who’s from New Haven, and seven other ABC students — all girls attending RHS, two freshmen, two sophomores, two juniors, two seniors — live with a resident director in the ABC house that A Better Chance of Ridgefield operates in town.

The group is a local affiliate of a national non-profit organization that seeks to advance the educational opportunities of talented minority students from struggling schools by sending them to high-quality schools — like Ridgefield High School. The program has operated in Ridgefield since 1987.

Snapchat to Twitter

The blackface image was originally sent on Snapchat and that image was screen-saved and eventually seen and photographed and posted and reposted on other electronic social media — giving the short-lived “snap” a longer life.

This happened in late October. Needless to say, it has not made the girls at the ABC house feel more at home in Ridgefield — which is 96% white, according to the U.S. census.

“Everyone started feeling uncomfortable with the situation going on, with the blackface picture,” Lashawnna said.

Still, Lashawnna was the only one of the eight A Better Chance students who wanted to speak to The Press about the incident.

Lashawnna didn’t say the incident reflects the attitude of a majority of RHS students, or suggest the school has an overtly racist atmosphere. Asked if she’d experienced any bullying at RHS, Lashawnna replied, “Not personally, thank God.”

But she also said the Snapchat incident isn’t an isolated one.  

“I know some of the girls have definitely experienced racism in the past. It’s not just toward African-American culture. I heard about a prom proposal last year that someone said, ‘Would jew like to go to the prom?’

“Every day in the hallways we hear the N-word used lightly. I’ve heard it at least 20 times,” said Lashawnna. As a freshman, she’s been at RHS a little over three months.

Lashawnna clarified that she hadn’t been called the N-word, or been confronted with it. She’d overheard kids using it.

“Just used lightly in conversation, not directed toward me,” she said.

Horrible, funny

The white kids in school had mixed reactions to the Snapchat image.

“Some people said it was horrible and some people said it was funny,” Lashawnna said.

“It was uncomfortable for everyone to talk about.

“Amongst my friends, the people I hang out with and consider my friends, they were so infuriated and angry things like this were happening at RHS.”

Kids who know Lashawnna from working together backstage on a school play were supportive, though surprised by the incident.

“They were so nice about it,” Lashawnna said. “It was a total surprise to them.”

Callie McQuilkin, an RHS senior, wrote about the incident in an editorial in the October/November issue of the school publication The Ridgefielder.

Callie contrasted the divisive racist Snapchat image with a moment of unity she’d felt when the national anthem brought everyone at Tiger Hollow — soccer players, students in the stands, parents there to watch the game — to a halt for a hands-over-hearts moment of shared silence and respect.

“The Twitter user who posted the snap tweeted the following: ‘Ridgefield High School, ridgefield [sic] Connecticut. Primarily white.’ The post, which was re-tweeted 473 times, garnered 437 likes and 64 comments,” McQuilkin wrote. “In the responses there were multiple allegations that the prejudice shown in the snap fit a larger trend of racism in the school and surrounding community.

“It is painful to see the student body, the same group I saw peacefully united at Tiger Hollow, reduce itself to these standards by using racial slurs flippantly online. … It is painful because I know the majority of RHS does not share the same cruelly disrespectful attitude displayed in the Snapchat post.”

Principal visits

The school administration, of course, was troubled by the incident.

After learning of the incident, RHS Principal Stacey Gross went to the ABC House for dinner with the girls and resident director Natasha McNeal, and sought to involve them in the school’s response.

“It got back to the principal at school. She said, ‘We don’t tolerate this behavior. It’s wrong,’” Lashawnna said.

“Dr. Gross came over for dinner at the house with all the girls and Natasha, and we discussed our feelings and how we would change RHS for the better,” Lashawnna said. “And after dinner we all sat together and we came up with strategies, and that’s when we got to talking about Black History Month, and how no one really knows about it.

“So then she said she was going to speak with the head of the social studies department about Black History Month in education and why it’s not being taught. …

“So that’s when the head of social studies emailed all the girls in the house and wanted to meet with all the girls in the house and she wanted to meet with us and get the ball rolling and, hopefully, make a lasting impact.”

Lashawnna also spoke to Dean Patrick Hughes, and asked what the school had done to discipline students involved. She was told that information couldn’t be shared — a standard school position on student privacy.

Lashawnna thinks it’s good the administration has invited the ABC girls to help with the school’s response to the incident.

“I want to be involved and impact the school in a positive way,” she said.

But even with the attention in the student publication, The Ridgefielder, Lashawnna said it didn’t feel to her the incident had gotten much notice at the school.

“Really, the only authority figures I’ve heard talk about this are Dr. Gross, Dean Hughes and some of the counselors. None of my teachers — the people that teach me — have said anything,” Lashawnna said. “I’m not even sure they know about it.”

She added, “I feel like only 10% of the student body knows about it.”

Angry host family

The guest ABC students come from near and far, and have host families in town with whom they stay on weekends.

The incident, Lashawnna said, greatly upset them.

“My host family was mad, so, so mad. It’s the most angry I’ve ever seen them,” she said.

Her host mother took up the matter with Superintendent of Schools Karen Baldwin.

“She actually went to meetings with the superintendent, and just wanted to know how this was being dealt with, if she could help,” Lashawnna said.

“They’ve been so supportive. I wish all the families in Ridgefield could be like that. It would be much better if it started at home.”

Lashawnna has also discussed the incident with her mother in New Haven. Her mother emailed the school to make sure the incident was being addressed, she said, and also spoke to her about her own experiences growing up.

“My mom said, ‘I was bullied at my school because of the color of my skin.’ My grandmother said she was not wanted at her school, because of the color of her skin,” Lashawnna said.

Her grandmother was from Boston, and then raised her mother mostly in Taunton, Mass., which was more suburban.

“The further you go back, the worse the story gets,” Lashawnna said, “which does suggest it’s getting better.”